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China Steps Up Preparations for 2008 Olympics Amid Criticism Over Spending, Human Rights - 2004-08-27

With the Olympics drawing to a close in Athens, China is stepping up preparations for its turn to host the games in 2008. Not all is going smoothly as some international groups continue to press the Communist government to improve its human rights record before the next games.

A worker chisels away at a slab of marble railing in Beijing's ancient imperial palace, the Forbidden City. His work is part of a multi-billion dollar facelift the Chinese capital is getting as it prepares to for thousands of visitors during the 2008 Olympic Games.

China's communist leaders hope to use the games to showcase their achievements in making this country of 1.6 billion people one of the fastest growing economies of the world. Beijing has in recent years transformed itself from a maze of drab and crowded alleyways to a modern metropolis of seemingly endless expressways and high rises.

Observers say China is spending between $20 and $40 billion on sports infrastructure and transportation projects. The spending has drawn criticism from those concerned about the country's vast number of poor people. Others criticize the government for displacing thousands of families and bulldozing historic buildings to make way for Olympic projects.

The latest challenge came this week from Reporters Without Borders, a group based in Paris that advocates freedom of the press. The group says China has failed to improve its human rights record in accordance to its commitment to the International Olympic Committee.

Spokesman Vincent Brossel says the group is calling on the IOC and the international community to pressure Beijing to improve its record or face a boycott at the games. He says his group believes that if Beijing does not change, and the games go ahead, the world would be helping the government justify its repressive policies.

"We fear that it will be a new opportunity to manipulate the fact that the country is changing in terms of economics but is not changing so much in terms of how the communist party is controlling the country," he said.

Reporters Without Borders says the Chinese government has tightened Internet controls and continued to jail or harass journalists whose reporting is seen as unfavorable to the communist party. It says crackdowns continue on political dissidents and religious groups.

China's foreign ministry had no immediate comment on the boycott threat. One Beijing municipal official called the Reporters Without Borders allegations "irrelevant."

Many ordinary people also see the Olympics as an opportunity to showcase China's growing status in the world. Speaking on a sidewalk outside Beijing's Workers' Stadium, Duan Shuqi - a 63-year-old retiree - says the games will be a big boost for China's image. He says he has lived through poverty and repression in the early decades of the communist government and he sees the Olympics as a sign that China has left misery and international isolation behind.

"What our country has invested, to prepare for the event and to train our athletes, is meant to show our country's strength," he said. "We are showing that Chinese people are healthy, and [hosting the Olympics] will show that our economy is developed."

Given the criticism over its spending on the games, there are indications that the Chinese government is reevaluating its plans and is cutting costs. Beijing's mayor this month said the Olympics would be held in a frugal fashion, following reports that a number of construction projects have been halted.